Fallout 4: Far Harbor (PC) review
"An RPG Without a Role-Model Has No Foundation"
In the wake of Fallout 4, there is an outdated gag best summarized as “I used to be an RPG like you (New Vegas) until Bethesda took the RP out of my G,” and Far Harbor is the closest Bethesda has ever attempted to truly create a role-playing experience. Even including Morrowind, Far Harbor is closer to real role-playing that doesn’t boil down to choosing a different direction/beginning with linear questlines plaguing all of TES and Fallout 3/4. It’s a damned shame underneath all the faction and voice-acting polish, the multiple routes for quests, and the added choices Far Harbor is still burdened under the limitations of F4. It’s one of the many Bethesda design anchors set in FH that you wish they would leave behind to chart new waters and to reap new rewards in its future.
One thing often overlooked about Fallout 4 is that there are moments of genuine RPG quest design. In the midst of many simple loot-and-fetch adventures and radiant objectives, the base game had brief encounters with actual quest design featuring multiple solutions and the means to accomplish them. The U.S.S. Constitution and the Relay transponder featured skill-checks to repair and/or optional objectives to accomplish them; Vault 81 and Curie had long-lasting consequences on the game-world; the faction system itself allowed some leeway to either side with one faction or make a truce between the three; and the Covenant and Valentine Cases utilized exploration and skill-checks in freeform quests. Even the Silver Shroud questline, which was mainly built to be a gag, involves so many branching paths to either “role-play” as the Shroud or to shape its adventure more to the player. Compared to the rest of the quests, it is easy to see how much more involved F4 could have been with its RPG elements.
These memories feel like the basis of Far Harbor because they are all included, in small doses, into one package. The intro sequence at Kasumi’s residence involves detective skills and exploration (as well as the Vault Murder Mystery); skill checks briefly appear when repairing circuits on the island and a medical check; the entire plot and main-questline of FH is an open-ended adventure where you can side between none, to all three factions; choices do lead to consequences, and if you do not load a previous save, they are permanent; and there is some semblance of “role-playing” in its narrative from a question asked to the player. These are all included along with the base game appeal of an interesting environment to explore for loot and for lore in an immersive world, and these well-designed quests and characters further add to the experience. In the 15 – 25 hours it will take to complete FH, there is a far richer adventure than the base game, and it’s easily the highest point of the game.
Unfortunately, and as much praise as Bethesda does deserve from this expansion, the mechanics of F4 come back to reel itself from its shining glory. While there is a lot more depth added to the role-playing mechanics, the simplicity comes back to undermine the journey. The Fog itself, a great mechanic and theme, is ruined by mashing VATS that shows every enemy waiting for you. There are only half-a-dozen skill checks outside of Hacking and Lockpicking with one reliant on medicine, one reliant on repair, and the rest are persuasion checks. In contrast, New Vegas utilized all skills in dialogue for greater variety of achieving an outcome. This shallow implementation of skills also extends to the new factions, which showcases many familiar problems with Bethesda.
The factions themselves are notably better but they are also utterly shoehorned to favor a goody-goody character. (It is a nice touch that the base-game factions also respond to the situation in different ways.) Unless you are playing as a self-aware fanatic or a Children of Atom character, there is no justification to destroy Far Harbor, especially when the Harbor are natives and your boat is in their docks. If you are siding with the Harbor, then you would also naturally side with Arcadia (unless you are with the BoS or the Institute.) It is also absurd how much the other two factions want to maintain peace with trigger-happy nuclear bomb enthusiasts, and they will berate you unless you do the morally questionable “peace” solution. Under these smaller problems is a far greater issue with Far Harbor--and Bethesda’s Fallout games--that goes all the way back to Bethesda’s acquisition of Fallout, it’s their incessant need to fall back on iconography and familiarity.
Far Harbor, at its greatest moments, showcases what direction Bethesda should move towards to create a greater RPG; and yet at its lowest moments, FH illustrates a problem that has been unresolved ever since Fallout 3. That problem is the inability to leave behind the lore of old to make new things, and FH feels like the epicenter of that problem. The Children of Atom and Super Mutants being shoe-horned into the Harbor much like how the Brotherhood of Steel are in EVERY game; the same plot-structure of “Missing family member” and themes FH shares with Point Lookout and Fallout 3 and 4 (and Automatron with the Mechanist, and Nuka World with bits of Dead Money, Old World Blues and New Vegas.) These signs either point to an appeal to their lowest-common denominator fanbase or to a lack of confidence to innovate, and it is becoming a greater problem the more it holds them back.
In short, what Ubisoft suffers from “iconic” is Bethesda suffering from their need to integrate their iconography, visual images and symbols that define a product. Tim Cain, the original creator of Fallout, made a statement on Fallout 3’s Super Mutants that essentially expressed he wished these barbarian-like creatures were their own creation rather than being misapplied to Super Mutants. It’s a statement that only becomes more profound with time the more Fallout succumbs to being creatively drained by its identity. Instead of making something new, Bethesda restricts themselves for whatever reason, further diminishing the value of their ideas, and in this case, it’s the island of Far Harbor.
The Island itself is perhaps one of the best environments Bethesda has ever created, visually, thematically and narratively. What Far Harbor shares with New Vegas is every locale tells its own story in the larger continuity of the Island mainly from its environment details and lore elements of the old-world lost in the new one. The plot of the game, however, is a miniscule representation of the struggle in the Commonwealth. Synth refugees aiding the Harbor and fueling their fears; the survival on an island that is full of life hostile to humans; the post-post-apocalypse of the land destroyed by time, reclaimed, and now on the verge of another massive change--the Island is as much as a character as the other major characters, DiMA, the Harbor and the Mother of the Fog.
In contrast to the Island, DiMA and “the Mother of the Fog” are side-stories on the Island only to raise questions without definitive answers. The Harbor’s stories all feel relevant to the location whereas these two feels only tangently relevant. Bethesda appears to suffer from the “Invent a Twist First, Then Improvise” model as the questions raised about the Fog and the Player feel half-baked attempts to contrive meaning where there is none. The real story is the island you explore with remnants of old and hazardous world to all who do not adapt, and it’s exploring that wasteland in all its dangerous beauty to behold life carrying on after the post-post-apocalypse.
When finally casting away from the Harbor at the end of the journey, all one can think of for the future of Fallout are the lines, “I sat upon the shore / Fishing, with the arid plain behind me / Shall I at least set my lands in order?”
Community review by Brian (June 25, 2021)
Current interests: Strategy/Turn-Based Games, CRPGs, Immersive Sims, Survival Solo Games, etc.
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